AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2004

Missed Signals   

Why did it take so long for the news media to break the story of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib?

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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   » Abu Ghraib Time Line

Donald H. Rumsfeld could not pass up a chance to gloat.

During a town hall-style meeting with Pentagon workers on May 11, the defense secretary smugly noted that it was "the military, not the media" that discovered and reported the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, a hellhole 20 miles west of Baghdad.

Rumsfeld's remarks touched a nerve.

Because, for a variety of reasons, the media were awfully slow to unearth a scandal that ultimately caused international embarrassment for the United States and cast a shadow over the war in Iraq. Images of American prison guards using sexual humiliation and snarling guard dogs to terrify naked Arab prisoners may well have lasting repercussions for U.S. foreign policy.

What's worse, there was no shortage of signs that something was amiss. For two years, global monitors such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch repeatedly warned of mistreatment of detainees at the hands of Americans in the dark recesses of Afghanistan and at the holding tank for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And there were prescient stories, stories that appeared and then vanished without a trace. On December 26, 2002, the Washington Post published a breakthrough piece on the CIA's "brass-knuckled quest for information" in Afghanistan. In March 2003, a cover story in The Nation said that torture was gaining acceptance in the Bush administration. In November, the Associated Press was among the first to raise alarms about abuse at Abu Ghraib – but few of the AP's clients showcased the story, if they ran it at all.

Then, on January 16 of this year, the U.S. Command in Baghdad issued a one-paragraph press release: "An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility. The release of specific information concerning the incidents could hinder the investigation, which is in its early stages. The investigation will be conducted in a thorough and professional manner."

The tantalizing but sketchy release didn't exactly set off a media firestorm. The New York Times published a 367-word report on page 7, noting that the inquiry was expected to "add fuel" to the burgeoning allegations of abuse. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a 707-word story, also played on page 7, headlined, "U.S. probes report of abuse of Iraqi detainees." The Washington Post and USA Today did not run stories on the release, according to a Lexis-Nexis search. The Boston Globe had about 100 words on the investigation at the end of an 844-word Iraq story on A4. The Dallas Morning News ran a 20-word brief on 26A. Television largely ignored the announcement: CNN and Fox News Channel mentioned it briefly on January 16, NBC had a 41-word item the following morning, and that was about it.

Then the story largely disappeared. Few followed the misty clue.

Three-and-a-half months later, the degradation at Abu Ghraib finally became major international news after CBS' "60 Minutes II" on April 28 aired ghastly photographs of U.S. military police posing and grinning next to naked, hooded Iraqi prisoners. Two days later, The New Yorker posted Seymour M. Hersh's scorching account of prisoner mistreatment at the prison.

Why did it take so long for the news media to uncover the scandal? What went wrong?

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. wishes his newspaper had gone harder after the story at the outset. But, he asks, referring to the January press release, "Have you ever read that paragraph? They made it as innocent-sounding as possible, and it just wasn't noticed the way it should have been."

Journalists were not aggressive enough and were slow to grasp the significance of the military's announcement, says Philip Taubman, the New York Times' Washington bureau chief. "We didn't do our job with this until the photographs appeared on CBS" and Hersh's story hit the Internet.

"It was," says Taubman, "a failure of newsgathering."

After the televised images put the story into play, the relentless reporting of Sy Hersh helped build momentum. His first piece, "Torture at Abu Ghraib," which appeared in The New Yorker's May 10 issue after its late-April online debut, explored how far up the chain of command responsibility lay. Hersh provided details from a secret report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba documenting massive failures of the Army's prison system in Iraq. An accompanying photo, one that quickly became an iconic image, showed a hooded Iraqi prisoner balanced on a box, wires attached to his fingers, toes and penis.

Hersh followed up with articles in the magazine's next two issues, explaining how a covert Pentagon program, focused on the hunt for al Qaeda, had been expanded to the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners. He outlined how the Department of Defense mishandled "the disaster" at Abu Ghraib, and conducted a series of poorly conceived internal investigations. His third story tied the roots of the prison scandal to a decision approved last year by Rumsfeld to expand the highly secretive interrogation operation.

But it was the photographs that ignited a global firestorm. Top Arab networks Al Jazeera, based in Qatar, and Al Arabiya, based in the United Arab Emirates, aired images around the clock of torture and the outraged reaction of the Islamic Middle East. Egypt's Akhbar el-Yom splashed the word "Scandal" across the front page above smiling U.S. soldiers posing by naked, hooded prisoners piled in a human pyramid. The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan warned that the "barbaric" treatment would rally Islamic fundamentalists.

American journalists were in a catch-up frenzy. News organizations quickly jumped on the story and began exploring whether Abu Ghraib was the work of a handful of proverbial "bad apples" or an officially sanctioned policy. The story dominated cable news and left conservative media personalities like Bill O'Reilly of Fox News Channel charging that the Abu Ghraib scandal was being used to destroy the Bush administration by news outlets with an agenda.

The Washington Post published a three-part series about the murky world of U.S. interrogation that could have been the script for a spy flick. Reporters described a clandestine "new universe..developed by military or CIA lawyers, vetted by the Justice Department's office of legal counsel and, depending on the particular issue, approved by the White House general counsel's office or the president himself." They told of a secret CIA interrogation center in Kabul nicknamed "The Pit," of "ghost detainees" held in secret prisons, of a covert airline used to transport prisoners.

The Post obtained some 1,000 photos documenting the abuse and disclosed previously secret sworn statements by Abu Ghraib prisoners alleging that they had been ridden like animals, sexually fondled by female soldiers and forced to retrieve their food from toilets.

The mushrooming scandal commanded the May 17 covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Abu Ghraib dominated the headlines for a month. Day after day top national newspapers brought to light new aspects of the debacle on their front pages.

"The whole tenor of the coverage definitely changed. It got much bolder" after the CBS and Hersh exposés, says Salon's Eric Boehlert, who writes about media issues. "Up to that point, the American news media seemed hesitant, almost dutiful" in reporting about prisoner mistreatment in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

Why were the news media so slow to react? "There were multiple reasons why we fell off the mark," says Ken Auletta, The New Yorker's media reporter. "It can't be just one thing."

Media critics and newsroom professionals cite a wide array of factors: the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy and controlling the news agenda; extremely dangerous conditions that limited reporting by Western reporters in much of Iraq; the challenge of covering the multifaceted situation in the embattled country with a finite amount of reporting firepower. Some see a media still intimidated by the post-9/11 orgy of patriotism. Yet there's little doubt that missed clues and ignored signals were part of the mix.

There's a strong consensus that the administration's skill at information management played a major role. The terse January 16 press release is Exhibit A. Then came the clampdown on information about Abu Ghraib immediately afterward. Prison camps in Afghanistan and Iraq tended to be forbidden zones.

"I have never seen greater news management in 30-plus years in this business," Loren Jenkins, foreign editor for National Public Radio, says of the administration's approach. "They are very skilled at it."

Journalists in pursuit of the Abu Ghraib story might have been thwarted by what Jenkins describes as an entrenched Pentagon strategy to obfuscate negative effects of the American occupation of Iraq. "But that's what the Fourth Estate is all about – poking holes in news management," says Jenkins, who covered the Vietnam War. "Our job is to find out whether we're being told the truth or not."

Yet, when it comes to Abu Ghraib, "basically we couldn't get at the story," he admits. "We all had people telling us about mistreatment, but it was hard to verify on our own. It took the pictures to say, 'This is undeniable.'"

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller agrees. "Any honest editor will give you the same answer. It's the pictures; that's what did it. But it shouldn't require visual drama to make us pay attention to something like this."

Safety concerns also could have played a role in the lack of coverage. There is little doubt that the high risk of being kidnapped, wounded or killed has quelled independent reporting efforts outside the safety zones of Baghdad over the past year. See Letter from Baghdad. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Iraq as the most dangerous place in the world to cover the news. According to the CPJ, 27 media professionals have been killed since the war started in March 2003.

At the same time, suicide bombers, surprise attacks and oil-field sabotage have caused headaches for foreign desks juggling multiple assignments. Deciding where to expend reporter power often became a form of triage as resistance to the occupation ignited across the country and more foreigners were being targeted.

"We can't fault our reporters in Iraq for not dropping everything else they were doing to get this story," says Doyle McManus, the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau chief. "If one of those reporters had said, 'This is the tip of the iceberg,' which we now know it was, it's possible we would have put some more resources into it and done more digging. But I don't think they realized there was an iceberg underneath."

Asked if the L.A. Times had run a story after the January 16 press release about the abuse probe, McManus turned to his computer. He quickly found a 15-inch piece by a Times reporter that had run on page A6 titled "Coalition investigating prison abuse." "It was another red flag we didn't pick up on" in Washington, McManus said of the story. "I'm not happy about that."

Associated Press reporter Charles J. Hanley calls tracking evidence of the abuse a "needle in the haystack" venture that many news organizations, already stretched thin, did not have time to pursue. "We were all in a very pressure-filled, difficult situation, trying to cover a very sprawling story. Something like this was not readily available," says Hanley, who wrote an early but largely ignored story on prisoner mistreatment. "It took me weeks, on and off, to find the released detainees."

The Post's Downie offers a similar explanation: "There was a lot in Iraq to cover, and so it took a concerted effort to say, 'OK, we're going to spend a certain amount of our resources, time and attention on this particular story, in addition to all the others.'" In the case of the prisoner abuse, "We were nudged along by CBS, which did a very important journalistic act" when it aired the photographs, he says.

Several media experts hypothesize that since 9/11, the government has played on the patriotism of journalists, raising the terrorism banner to deflect press criticism. That could make a difference in how reporters pursue a story that might embarrass the U.S., particularly when soldiers are dying in a foreign land.

"There is an awareness on the part of the White House that this tendency exists, so they go for it, exploit it," says Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "It isn't that [the government] beats somebody over the head. They don't have to. That's what makes it so much more painful.

"Maybe the rush of patriotism we saw in spades after 9/11 has continued," he adds. "Maybe editors fell asleep and didn't ask reporters to pursue obvious lines of inquiry [about Abu Ghraib]. The news industry itself has not been glowingly successful in coverage of the war on terror."

On December 6, 2001, appearing before a Senate committee, Attorney General John Ashcroft chastised critics of the administration's terrorism policy, saying that they give "ammunition to America's enemies." Equating dissent with disloyalty and a lack of good citizenship can become deeply rooted, says Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.

She believes that could account for the media's failure to raise more probing questions in the run-up to the war in Iraq as well as over the allegations of prisoner abuse. "I really do think there has been a culture of intimidation," says vanden Heuvel. "Journalists are afraid not to be patriotic." (See "Are the News Media Soft on Bush?" October/November 2003.)

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, doesn't see the patriotism card playing a role. "Of course, maybe right after 9/11, but by this time I don't think the press is so easily intimidated," he says. "It just might be that the story was too unbelievable."

Reporters may have found it difficult to fathom that the American military would carry out a policy of torture. That could have made it easier to dismiss abuse allegations by Iraqis or attribute them to an occasional lapse. Some correspondents may have problems reporting information that reflects badly on the U.S. military, says the AP's Hanley, especially when it comes from non-American sources.

The New Yorker's Auletta believes naïveté on the part of some correspondents could have played a role. "I am sure that a lot of reporters had a hard time imagining that we would be guilty of the kind of abuse we often associate with Third World dictators. We're often criticized for being too cynical; sometimes we're probably not cynical enough," he says. "Maybe [reporters] were afraid to look too negative; maybe they didn't have the information or couldn't get the sources in the military to pursue it. I don't think there is any one explanation."

Downie pays tribute to "60 Minutes II" for its "nudge" to the rest of the news media. But not everyone thought that nudge was such a good thing. Howls that the media were going overboard on the Abu Ghraib story were quick to emerge, particularly from the right.

One of the first to complain was talk radio's Rush Limbaugh, who accused the New York Times and others of using the scandal as a battering ram on the Bush administration. In May, Limbaugh told his 20 million weekly listeners that mainstream journalists felt threatened by talk radio, conservative bloggers and Fox News Channel. "Now they're feeling their oats again. They're all pumped up like Arnold Schwarzenegger was on steroids," he said. Limbaugh dismissed the behavior at Abu Ghraib as military personnel having a good time and blowing off some steam.

The host of Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" had a similar take. On May 27, Bill O'Reilly opened a show by asking, "Have the New York Times and the L.A. Times declared war on the Bush administration?" He noted that the Los Angeles Times had put Abu Ghraib on its front page "26 out of the past 28 days." "Does this story rate that kind of coverage? You decide," O'Reilly told his audience.

Around the same time, Jonah Goldberg, editor at large for National Review Online, wrote that "CBS should be ashamed for running those photos." Goldberg complained of a double standard in media coverage. "When shocking images might stir Americans to favor war, the Serious Journalists show great restraint. When those images have the opposite effect, the Ted Koppels let it fly," he wrote.

None of this surprised Mike King, public editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Immediately after the beheading of American businessman Nicholas Berg in May, King began receiving calls and e-mail messages from readers demanding coverage equal to Abu Ghraib. "It started before we even printed anything in the next morning's paper," King says. "It was like a mantra: 'We're watching to see how you treat it.' It was fascinating – like a challenge had been laid down. This was going to become the litmus test for fairness and war coverage in general."

King attempted to refute the idea that if the Berg execution didn't get the same level of coverage as the prison scandal, it would prove that left-leaning journalists care more about U.S. soldiers embarrassing Iraqi prisoners than they do about terrorists killing Americans. He argued in a column that the Berg murder was a different story and demanded a different level of coverage.

"It's getting increasingly rigid. Virtually every story gets filtered through some partisanship prism," he says. "This comes through loud and clear in e-mail and phone calls."

Los Angeles Times media writer David Shaw distilled the complaints he was hearing about media overreaction into four essential arguments. The coverage was an effort to damage the Bush White House; it provided material for propaganda to recruit more American-hating terrorists; Saddam Hussein was a far worse torturer; a few bad apples carried out the abuse.

Shaw debunked each one in a May 30 column, including the idea that the "liberal media" were in attack mode against the White House. Shaw maintained that the coverage did not represent "swarm journalism." He pointed out the substantial difference between giving massive attention to trivia like Janet Jackson's briefly bared breast and giving it to American soldiers abusing and humiliating prisoners.

Response from the public was roughly divided between those who agreed with him and those "who say we are making a big deal out of this to embarrass Bush," Shaw says.

Terence Smith, who covers the media for PBS' "The News-Hour with Jim Lehrer," rejects the notion that the Abu Ghraib coverage was politically motivated. It was the media's job, he says, "to deal with the news as it was and not attempt to prejudge what impact a given development was going to have on world opinion, on politics, on the administration." He points to the Washington Post, which obtained up to 1,000 of the prison photos in the wake of the CBS report, as a prime example of press "responsibility and restraint" in covering the scandal. Says Smith, "They used only those [photos] that advanced the story, were newsworthy and in context."

While the American media were slow to discover the abuse at Abu Ghraib, a number of news organizations published stories on the mistreatment of American-held prisoners in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay as far back as 2002.

One of the first major pieces ran in the Washington Post on December 26, 2002. The page-one story by Dana Priest and Barton Gellman featured interviews with former intelligence officials and 10 current U.S. national security officials, including some who witnessed the handling of captured al Qaeda operatives and Taliban leaders. An official who supervised the transfer of prisoners told the Post, "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job."

The story detailed torture allegations and told of captives being moved to secret detention centers in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, all countries where security forces are known for their brutality. According to witnesses, MPs and U.S. Army Special Forces troops often "softened up" prisoners by covering their heads with hoods, beating them, throwing them against walls and depriving them of sleep.

Why didn't the Post continue to follow the trail? "In part, obviously, because information was not made readily available, and in part because we didn't always see the tip of the iceberg as clearly as we should have," Downie says.

The Nation's vanden Heuvel hails the Post piece as "a breakthrough in the U.S. press" and says it was one of the factors that inspired her to pursue a cover story on how torture was regaining mainstream acceptance in the age of 9/11. The piece ran on March 31, 2003, with the headline "In Torture We Trust?"

The story told of death certificates released for two al Qaeda suspects who died while in U.S. custody at the Bagram base in Afghanistan that showed both were killed by "blunt force injuries." Other detainees told of being hung from the ceiling by chains.

In the same issue, writer Eyal Press explored why there had been no outcry over such behavior. "There's been a painful silence about this," Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth told The Nation. "I haven't heard anyone in Congress call for hearings or even speak out publicly." The silence extends to the news media, wrote Press.

On November 1, 2003, the AP's Hanley filed a story out of Baghdad about alleged mistreatment at three detention centers, including Abu Ghraib. The others were Camp Cropper at the Baghdad airport and Camp Bocca in southern Iraq.

Hanley, a Pulitzer Prize winner, interviewed half a dozen former detainees who corroborated each other's stories about psychological abuse, beatings and other forms of severe punishment. Their information tended to dovetail with what Amnesty International had heard.

In mid-October 2003, Hanley submitted questions to the U.S. Command in Baghdad about the charges. Did the military tie people up and lay them out in the sun for hours? Did it deprive them of food for punishment? How many deaths have there been and what were the circumstances?

"They didn't respond," Hanley says. "They didn't even deny it."

In his November 1 piece, he also reported on two pending U.S. military legal cases in which four soldiers were accused of beating Iraqi prisoners and two Marines were charged with an Iraqi's death in detention.

It appears only a few newspapers picked up the story. Hanley says the AP does not do "exhaustive" play checks, "but we had the feeling from our experience and from the feedback, that it was relatively few" who published the piece. As for why more didn't use it, he says, "I'm a bit at a loss. It may have been a combination of factors ranging from a reluctance by some to publicize such charges coming from non-American sources to the length of the piece, which would be inconvenient to many papers."

In a March 3, 2004, story, Jen Banbury, a correspondent for the online magazine Salon, told of joining a crowd outside Abu Ghraib in search of former detainees or family members who could shed light on allegations of mistreatment coming from behind the walls. Suddenly, she heard an American voice shout, "What the hell is going on here?" Banbury was ordered to leave the area by U.S. Military Police. When she attempted to get permission to return to the area through U.S. Command channels, it was denied.

The reporter wrote a detailed account of the "obfuscation" by the military regarding Abu Ghraib prisoners and provided an overview of the charges from families and monitors like Human Rights Watch.

That was nearly two months before the harrowing images aired on CBS.

Psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton believes that it's the news media's responsibility to educate the public on the true nature of war. "Wars are ugly and have grotesque dimensions people at home can hardly imagine," he says. "The role of the media is to bring them as close as possible to what is happening."

The photographs from Abu Ghraib burned into the American psyche, often sparking visceral reactions. Lifton believes that, ultimately, the photographs could lead more Americans to conclude "there is something tainted, dirty or wrong" about the war in Iraq. Lifton, who has written books about the Vietnam War and Nazi war crimes, says the reaction to Abu Ghraib was even stronger than the response to the My Lai massacre in the late 1960s.

Yet not everyone wants to see those horrific images.

When the Sacramento Bee ran only stories of the scandal, there was barely a ripple from the public. Then, on May 7, the paper published a front-page photo of U.S. Army Spc. Lynndie England holding a naked Iraqi man on a leash. Readers were outraged – not at the MP's behavior but at the Bee. They used words and phrases like "sensationalism," "Bush-bashing" and "pornographic" when they contacted the paper, according to Ombudsman Tony Marcano. A mere "handful" of readers commended the Bee for running the photograph.

Editors at the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page note explaining that the public's right to know outweighed the potentially disturbing nature of the images. Still there was a backlash. "What a disgusting bit of propaganda and deceit. Now that we know what side the Chronicle is on you can cancel my subscription posthaste," said one letter writer. The Chronicle's reader representative, Dick Rogers, made a stab at explaining the paper's decision in a column, writing that "it is not the newspaper's job to sanitize the war." The majority of readers who sent e-mails or letters to the editor supported the Chronicle's decision to publish the photos.

Some media outlets shied away from the photos at first. Though they were widely available on the wires, only a few of the major newspapers ran the images alongside front-page stories in the immediate aftermath. Among those who did: the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Washington Post. The New York Times, Miami Herald and Baltimore Sun opted for inside pages.

For the New York Times, it was a matter of caution. Late on April 28, the CBS photos moved on the wire, but "our night crew was uncomfortable with their inability to independently verify that the pictures were legitimate," says Executive Editor Keller. "That held us up for a day." By then the photos weren't as "fresh," so the newspaper opted to run them inside. "I think we were a little slow to recognize what propulsive effect the pictures would have on this story," Keller adds.

Portland's Oregonian had an ethical debate about whether running the photos was the right thing to do. Public Editor Michael Arrieta-Walden attempted to help readers understand the newspaper's decision by posing key questions in a column: What is the journalistic mission? What about the privacy of the individual soldier or prisoner? What if that was my son in the photograph? Editors decided not to publish some of the more grisly photos, including one of a naked prisoner terrified by a growling German shepherd.

Some simply didn't display them at all. As the prison scandal reverberated, Fox News' O'Reilly interviewed conservative singer Pat Boone, who was furious at CBS and the media in general for igniting the global furor and exposing the U.S. military to criticism.

O'Reilly informed his guest: "I didn't use the photos at all. I didn't use any of them."

"God bless you," Boone replied.

Where is the story headed now? The AP's Hanley thinks he knows. On June 30, the New York Times published an editorial about the Bush administration's stone-walling on declassifying reports and documents that could help to unearth the truth about Abu Ghraib.

The next reporting frenzy, says Hanley, could come when these secrets finally are made public or are leaked to the media. The impending court proceedings for soldiers charged with abuse at Abu Ghraib also could be a treasure trove as defense lawyers attempt to answer the questions: How widespread was the policy? How high up did it go?

"So much of this still is being kept a secret," says Hanley. "That is the challenge."

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